Dr. Afua Cooper

Poet / Author / Historian, Toronto, ON. Born: Jamaica.

Dr. Afua Cooper is a celebrated and award-winning poet, author, historian, curator, performer, cultural worker, and recording artist. Her poems have been anthologized in national and international publications, and translated in several languages, and she has published five books of poetry, including the award-winning Memories Have Tongue. Her newest book of poetry, Copper Woman, is a work in which she attempts to bring together the personal and the political, the exoteric and the esoteric.

Afua holds a Ph.D. in history with specialties in slavery, abolition and women’s studies, and is one of Canada’s premier experts and chroniclers of the country’s Black past. She has done groundbreaking work in uncovering the hidden history of Black peoples in Canada. Her recent history publication, The Hanging of Angélique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montréal, cogently explores the life and death of Marie-Joseph Angélique, a Portuguese-born Black slave woman who was hanged in Montréal in 1734 for allegedly setting fire to the city. Angélique was nominated in 2006 for the Governor General’s Literary Award for non-fiction.

Recently, Afua completed a pair of historical novels for the young adult audience. The books, My Name is Henry Bibb: A Story of Slavery and Freedom and My Name is Phillis Wheatley: A Story of Slavery and Freedom are based on the experiences of enslaved children from the Black Diaspora. She was inspired to write these books after being moved by the real-life experiences of Phillis Wheatley and Henry Bibb, both of whom she researched while studying Black history. Phyllis & Henry were enslaved but overcame slavery and oppression to make their mark in the world and contribute to society. My Name is Henry Bibb won the Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People in 2010, and is shortlisted for Canada’s most prestigious children’s book award, The Red Maple™ Award. My Name is Phillis is nominated for the William Allen White Book Prize.

Other: Featured in the most recent volume of Contemporary Black Biography: Profiles from the International Black Community.

Works: Historical works: We’re Rooted Here and They Can’t Pull Us Up: Essays in African Canadian Women’s History (1994; reprinted 1999); The Underground Railroad, Next Stop: Toronto (2002); The Hanging of Angélique, The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montréal (2006). Poetry: Breaking Chains (1983); Red Caterpillar on College Street (1989); Memories Have Tongue (1992); Utterances and Incantations; Women, Poetry, and Dub (1999); Copper Woman (2006). Fiction: My Name is Henry Bibb: A Story of Slavery and Freedom (2009) and My Name is Phillis Wheatley: A Story of Slavery and Freedom (2009). Exhibits: “A Glimpse of Black Life in Victorian Toronto: 1850-1860″(2002); “The Underground Railroad, Next Stop: Freedom” (2002); “Paths to Freedom: The Josiah Henson Story” (2006); “Enslaved Africans in Upper Canada” (Consultant), Archives of Ontario (2007); “1858-2008: A Photo History of Black People in British Columbia” (2009). Discography: Sunshine (1988); Worlds of Fire (2002); Love and Revolution (2009).

Honours: Also include, winner, Premier of Ontario Literary Award for Excellence in the Arts (2008); received the Planet Africa Renaissance Award and the Harry Jerome Award for Professional Excellence; profiled in Who’s Who in Black Canada (2006); chosen by the editors of Essence magazine as one of the 25 women who are shaping the world (2005); winner, Joseph Brant Award for History.

Favourite book? The Arrivants by Kamau Brathwaite. This book of poetry speaks to the journey, destiny, struggle and triumph of African people through the travails of enslavement and beyond. It interweaves poetry and history in a brilliant and formidable fashion.

Favourite quote? Beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing, there’s a field. I’ll meet you there.” This is a quote by the great 13th century Muslim poet, Rumi. The poet is basically saying, ‘I am not here to pass judgement on anyone. Let us meet in total equality. Let us put away our stereotypes of each other, and recognize our common humanity. I love you. Let us meet in the place of light where right or wrong does not exist. Let us begin anew through love.’

Given the chance, what would you love to do that you haven’t done yet? I still would love to see the great pyramid at Giza in Egypt and visit Hatshepsut’s temple. Also to visit the great pyramid site at Tical in Guatemala, visit the desert city of Timbuktu, learn to play the piano, adopt a child, become fluent in Arabic, and get my black belt in karate.

Who inspires you? My two daughters, ages 18 and 15, are my inspiration. Recently, their father died (unexpectedly). It was such a shock to us all. We went into deep grief. In their sorrow, the girls were able to maintain a high average in school, did extremely well on their exams, made the honour roll, and won awards. I am in awe of them. They are my walking miracles. My heroes.

Why you do what you do? I do what I do because I know it is important that we use the talents and gifts that we are given. I love words, I love history, I love poetry, literature, art, culture. I am inspired by my ancestors, the struggles they waged so I could live and be free. My passion is to  research, illuminate, and showcase the culture, history, sociology, and art of Black peoples. I am committed to that struggle, committed to creating knowledge, beauty, love, freedom, and joy in this world.

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